Mentorship Legislation Makes it to the National Stage

Evan Linett is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.  

Two major pieces of federal legislation are seeking to expand funding for youth mentorship programs across the country. The Mentoring to Succeed Act, introduced in the U.S. Congress during June 2021, would strengthen federal investments in school-based mentorship programs to support at-risk youth. Simultaneously, the Foster Youth Mentoring Act was introduced in May 2021, and would authorize federal funding to assist mentoring programs that serve foster youth. If passed, the proposals would be the first of their kind to solidify mentorship as nationwide public policy to support positive youth development across the United States.

Why Mentorship—and Why Now?

Youth mentoring has been gaining traction as an effective social intervention over the past few decades. Numerous studies affirm the social, emotional, and academic benefits of mentorship, particularly for youth from institutionally underserved communities and for youth of color. For youth in foster care, longitudinal research suggests that developing a consistent mentoring relationship with an adult is associated with positive adjustment during the transition to adulthood. The research suggests that long-term, supportive relationships formed between mentors and mentees improve youth mental wellbeing, foster academic achievement, and may reduce rates of truancy and delinquency in schools.

Today, over 5,000 organizations in the United States offer some form of mentoring and serve approximately 3 million youth. Mentoring is promoted as part of a wide range of standalone federal programs spanning the Departments of Education, Justice, and Health and Human Services. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) is the largest federal funder of youth mentorship– between fiscal years 2008 to 2019, it awarded nearly $1 billion in grants to mentoring organizations. 

At the national level, youth mentorship often struggles to gain the widespread attention of policymakers who envision a more standards-based approach to addressing gaps in student achievement. Over the past two decades, federal education legislation, including the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015, set teaching and outcome standards that led to a trend in funding solutions directly tied to standards-based student achievement. The narrow policy image of youth mentorship as simply a tool to support social and emotional learning has halted its growth as major federal legislation.

Despite existing efforts, there are no major federal initiatives that promote youth mentorship as an established social policy. Given mentorship’s growing popularity and its promising research outcomes, the recent proposals have the potential to become trailblazing federal policies that advance quality youth mentoring at the national level.

Details of the Proposed Federal Legislation

The Mentoring to Succeed Act proposes a five-year federal grant program, overseen by the Department of Education, to establish or expand school-based mentoring programs that assist at-risk students in middle and high schools. The bill focuses on programs that will use the funds to prepare students for post-secondary success in college and the workforce, and in funding programs that train mentors in trauma-informed practices to support safety in communities and schools.

The Mentoring to Succeed Act was first introduced in Congress in August of 2020 and received promising vocal support. However, the Act did not receive a vote, due partly to its narrow advocacy coalition and competing legislative priorities related to COVID-19 school recovery efforts. In June 2021, the bill was reintroduced in the 116th Congress by its sponsors Sens. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. and Dick Durbin D-Ill. The Act has not yet received a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, which harms its chances of gaining support from potential legislative supporters who have worries about growing the federal budget.

The Foster Youth Mentoring Act would authorize the Department of Health and Human Services to award $50 million in funding for programs that provide mentoring for youth in foster care. Programs would be eligible to receive funds to expand services to more youth in foster care and to improve services for current foster youth in their programs. The Foster Youth Mentoring Act would provide the capacity and training needed to develop consistent mentoring relationships to support this vulnerable population of young people.

In May 2021, the Foster Youth Mentoring Act was introduced in the 116th Congress by Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif. along with 12 bipartisan co-sponsors. While the Act has not received a cost estimate from the Congressional Budget Office, the legislative text includes a specific amount for funding, which will aid legislators in deciding whether to pass the bill upon its reintroduction into the House.

The Future of Federal Legislation for Youth Mentorship is Promising, but Uncertain

The legislative outcomes for both the Mentoring to Succeed Act and the Foster Youth Mentoring Act are still uncertain. If the re-introduction of the Mentoring to Succeed Act is not successful, there is also an opportunity for certain provisions of the legislation to become law by being included in another bill, or by being added to larger omnibus bills.

If enacted, the Mentoring to Succeed Act would serve as a federal framework to support youth mentorship in public middle and high schools across the country. The Foster Youth Mentoring Act would address the need for greater support of mentoring programs and organizations that serve youth in foster care. Together, the proposals could become a catalyst for expanding youth mentorship and provide an opportunity for young people to grow their academic, social, and professional skills, at a time when more support is urgently needed.

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